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Kenya Bans LGBT Love Story ‘Rafiki’ Ahead of Cannes Premiere

Film board claims pic attempts to "legitimize lesbianism"

Kenyan authorities have banned Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki” (Friend), an LGBT love story which will have its world premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard next month. Kahiu announced the decision Friday morning, saying she was “incredibly disappointed” during an appearance on the “Morning Express” wake-up show on Kenyan network KTN.

“Unfortunately, our film has been censored in Kenya, because it deals with matters that are uncomfortable for the Kenya Film Classification Board,” she said. “But I truly believe that an adult Kenyan audience is mature and discerning enough to be able to watch this film and have their own conversation.”

She added, “[‘Rafiki’ is] a reflection of society, and we need to be having conversations about what is happening in our society. But unfortunately, because the film has been banned, we’ll be unable to have these conversations.”

The film is the story of two teenage girls who develop a romance that’s opposed by their families and community. It was adapted from the short story “Jambula Tree,” by Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko, which was awarded the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007.

In a copy of the film board’s ruling obtained by Variety, CEO Ezekiel Mutua noted “with great concern” the movie’s depiction of “homosexual practices that run counter to the laws and the culture of Kenyan people.”

He added, “It is our considered view that the moral of the story in this film is to legitimize lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and the Board’s content classification guidelines.”

The ban represents a potentially embarrassing P.R. debacle for a government that has been feting Kahiu since the selection of “Rafiki” was announced. In an appearance on local radio station Hot96 just days earlier, Mutua described Kahiu as an “icon” and praised the film for addressing an issue that Kenyan society was “trying to sweep…under the carpet.” Encouraging Kenyan filmmakers to “venture into uncharted territory,” he said, “I think we need to celebrate Wanuri.”

The ruling marks the latest move in an ongoing crackdown on LGBT content in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal. The film board last year banned the Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack” after it was revealed that the show’s second season would feature a key character realizing he’s gay. It had earlier pressured South African satcaster MultiChoice to pull seven cartoons from the airwaves, because of what Mutua described as “retrogressive and bizarre messages intended to promote the [LGBT] agenda.”

The issue of gay rights in Kenya has lately been headline news, as the former British colony’s High Court hears a petition from LGBT rights groups to scrap provisions in its Victorian-era penal code that implicitly outlaw gay sex. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last week, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stated that gay rights were “of no importance to the people of Kenya.”

“This is not an issue of human rights, this is an issue of our own base as a culture,” he said.

In a Facebook post the day after the interview aired, the film board’s Mutua praised the president’s stance. “As a Board we have stood firm on this subject and will uphold the wider good of society by ensuring that film and broadcast content does not promote or legitimize homosexuality in this country,” he wrote. The film board had earlier approved the script for “Rafiki.”

During her TV appearance Friday morning, Kahiu expressed hope that the film would eventually find an audience in Kenya, citing the example of celebrated author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who spent more than two decades in exile before returning to his homeland.

“Maybe this work that is in exile will also come back, and we can properly have an open discourse about our people, our children, how we’re interacting with our community, and what our role is,” she said. “I’m incredibly disappointed, because I believe in Kenya.”

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